Half of Africa’s Lions Will Likely Be Gone in 20 Years

Researchers find the 20,000 big cats that remain face habitat destruction, poaching, and other threats to their survival.
Lions at the Linyanti Reserve in Botswana. (Photo: Wolfgang Kaehler/LightRocket via Getty Images)
Oct 26, 2015· 4 MIN READ
Richard Conniff is the author of House of Lost Worlds: Dinosaurs, Dynasties, and the Story of Life on Earth and other books.

The lion, long regarded as the king of wild African landscapes, is now rapidly vanishing from much of the continent.

Where perhaps 200,000 of them roamed across Africa in the mid-20th century—and an estimated 500,000 in precolonial times—only about 20,000 now remain. Half of those are likely to disappear over the next two decades, according to a report published Monday in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

Lions are being crowded out by habitat loss, depletion of their prey by bush meat hunters, and retaliatory or preemptive killings to protect livestock and people—all symptoms of a sub-Saharan human population on track to grow to 4 billion people by the end of this century.

Poorly regulated sport hunting also contributes to the problem, according to the report.

Weirdly, this catastrophic decline of one of the most celebrated species on Earth is happening almost without public notice, even asrampant poaching of elephants, rhinos, and tigers dominates the attention of the conservation community. That’s partly because, to visitors on safari, lions can seem just fine.

“Tourists go to the Serengeti or to Kruger National Park, and they get the impression that there is a lion lying under every single tree,” said Philipp Henschel, a lion specialist with cat conservation group Panthera and a coauthor of the PNAS report.

Lions are the easiest of the "Big Five" African wildlife species for a tourist to see, and in these protected areas the lions are completely comfortable, lounging around and looking picturesque for hours on end.

“But these are the last surviving populations,” Henschel said. “Outside protected areas, lion populations are in free fall.” They typically face shooting, spearing, trapping, or poisoning if they step across a park border. They are even in decline within some protected areas because of inadequate funding for park management.

The PNAS report provides a starkly divided picture of lion conservation. Populations are stable or increasing in a handful of southern African nations—Botswana, Namibia, South Africa, and Zimbabwe. (Yep, despite the recent furor over the trophy hunting of Cecil the lion by a Minnesota dentist, and despite that country’s atrocious political and economic problems, Zimbabwe still manages to provide a degree of wildlife protection, much of it funded by trophy hunting.) A remnant population in India’s Gir Forest National Park is also on the increase. According to the PNAS authors, those populations merit “of least concern” conservation status.

But everywhere else, lion populations are plummeting. Lions are already extinct in many West and Central African nations, with only two major populations surviving—350 lions in the W. Arly Pendjari Complex, on the borders of Benin, Burkina Faso, and Niger, and 250 in Cameroon’s Bénoué Complex. Despite thriving wildlife-based tourism in East Africa, those populations are also experiencing sharp declines. The PNAS authors recommend that the International Union for Conservation of Nature reclassify lions in these regions as endangered. (In response to a 2011 petition seeking an endangered species listing, the United States Fish and Wildlife Service last year proposed listing all lions as threatened.)

Apart from human population growth, money is the big challenge for lion survival. “Protecting lions is not cheap,” said Hans Bauer, an Oxford University lion specialist and lead author of the PNAS report. One recent estimate put the cost to protect a lion population at $2,000 per square kilometer per year. “But it’s not just for lions,” he said. “Lions are the flagship.” To protect lions, you have to protect habitats, and you have to protect prey species within the habitat. “Behind lions is the whole ecosystem.”

One reason southern African nations succeed at lion conservation, Henschel added, is that governments there recognize the importance of so-called retention schemes. That is, they allow protected areas to retain a portion of the funds they generate through photo tourism and trophy hunting to be used for rangers, antipoaching patrols, vehicles, fences, and all the other infrastructure need to keep the habitat healthy.

No such retention schemes exist, for example, in Tanzania. “The most dramatic example I know is the Ngorongoro Conservation Area, with 8,000 square kilometers of protected area,” said Henschel, “It could have 1,000 lions, and yet there are only 50 there, and that’s because they are only protected on the crater floor where the tourists go. The rest, they don’t care about.”

Tourists, many of them from the U.S., spend $30 to $50 million a year visiting there, mostly for the wildlife and also because of the celebrated archaeological site at Olduvai Gorge. Almost all of that money goes straight to a national government that is widely regarded as corrupt. Just how much comes back to maintain the habitat and the wildlife remains secret, but it is likely a pittance. The local Masai pastoralists who gave Ngorongoro its name (“Gift of Life”) do not share in the tourism economy. So if a lion steps off the crater floor, they generally spear it.

One other threat to lions is the growing trade in lion bones as substitutes for scarce tiger bones in Asian traditional medicine. That trade, supplied mainly by trophy hunting ranches and lion breeding facilities in South Africa, is currently legal, with permits from the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species. But according to a recent report from TRAFFIC, which monitors wildlife trade, the price paid for lion bones—$2,100 for a complete skeleton in 2013—has motivated some hunting facilities to exhume buried carcasses to sell the bones.

The fear is that this price might also motivate the killing of lions in wild areas outside South Africa. In 2012, said Henschel, the West African nation of Benin arrested two poachers with lion skins and bones within months after a Chinese road crew arrived in the area. The case shocked local wildlife officials: No one had previously been willing to risk their lives taking on a lion.

The bottom line is that if you think Africa without lions isn’t really Africa at all, you should contribute to groups working there to make a difference. Panthera is a good place to start. So is the African Wildlife Federation, or the Kenya-focused Living With Lions. If you hope to see lions in the wild, you should probably do it soon. I recommend Botswana and Namibia in particular, not least because your travel dollars will actually help pay to protect the habitat.

But that’s probably not enough if you hope for lions and other African wildlife to be around long enough for your grandchildren to see them. Craig Packer, a coauthor of the PNAS report, has argued elsewhere that “African countries have too small of a tax base to support their parks in the same way as in the West” and that World Bank funding could make a dramatic difference. That kind of support from Germany and the European Union is the only reason the W. Arly Pendjari Complex, for instance, has survived.

So write or phone your representatives to tell them to step up and save the world heritage of Africa’s remaining wild areas before they vanish forever.